Scientists in the United Kingdom recently completed a study suggesting that Arabica coffee, the species that makes up 75 percent of coffee beans sold, could become extinct in 70 years. Due to climate change and its symptoms including deforestation, at team at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens ran a series of computer simulations that indicate that wild Arabica coffee could become extinct by 2080.
Such a development should worry everyone from growers to consumers. Coffee is the second most traded global commodity after petroleum and is an economic lifeline for many countries in Africa and Latin America. Since the Arabica coffee beans grown throughout the world’s coffee farms are from a limited genetic stock, they are susceptible to pests and diseases. Wild Arabica coffee stock offers opportunities for scientists to extract some of its genetic stock to strengthen cultivated varieties and make them more climate change resistant.
The Kew scientists ran a series of analyses to gauge the future of Arabica coffee production in a world affected by climate change. The results showed that by 2080, the most favorable outcome would be that the world would suffer a 38 percent reduction in land suitable for coffee production–but the worst case scenario was a 99.7 percent reduction, which would effectively wipe out wild Arabica plants.
The team then traveled to the Boma Plateau region in South Sudan, a region where coffee cultivation has endured for centuries. The area had already undergone dramatic change, from deforestation to land clearing for agriculture. Compared to earlier studies, the Boma Plateau had suffered environmental degradation, with reduced seedlings, a lower frequency of flowering and fruiting and finally, a decrease in mature pants. Add the fact that coffee has risen in price in recent years because of poor harvests yet continued increased demand, and the long term prospects for coffee could become very grim.
Kew’s scientists hope their study is a clarion call for an increased understanding of coffee’s precarious future. The research team identified a series of sites in eastern Africa that could become home to wild coffee plants. And while deforestation has had a role in decreased coffee yields, climate change alone could be the deciding factor in Arabica beans’ survival. To that end, the Kew study calls for more storage of varieties in seed banks and immediate conservation action. Despite all the actions of fair trade organizations and groups including the Rain Forest Alliance, larger forces could have a huge impact on coffee cultivation in the years to come. Coffee companies will have to step it up if their businesses are to survive in the long term.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.